No manner of Robinho crises – and there was another one brewing last night – will transport Manchester City to the depths of winter and the misery when the deal to bring Kaka to Eastlands collapsed in January. Then, the executive chairman Garry Cook was slumped on the sofa with his American wife, Wendy, gazing blankly at a TV screen and wondering where it had all gone so wrong.
It was in the pit of that gloom that Cook noticed his name had started running across the bottom of the screen on the BBC headline ticker. "It said: 'Garry Cook accuses AC Milan of bottling it, followed by 'Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th US President.'" Cook recalls. "My wife turned to me at that point and said: 'Are you joking?'"
It was a moment which said as much about the skewed sense of perspective where football is concerned as it did about the scale of the job Cook has walked into at City. There were more bad moments to follow and the football world could barely disguised its glee. But Cook can raise a smile at the memory of that sofa moment now that last summer's £120m investment in players who did want to be a part of the City project has begun to pay a dividend, some malevolent dressing-room forces have gone and – above all – the club have played their full part in one of the most exhilarating Manchester derbies of all time.
Mrs Cook happened to be present at the match which will long live with the chief executive. "I remember turning to her when Michael Owen was warming up and then they stripped his track suit off," he says. "I leaned over and said: 'Watch this, there's a fairytale about to unravel here.' I don't what made me say it really, but I just did – and sure enough..."
The 4-3 defeat was almost beside the point. It was the whole imbroglio surrounding that occasion, starting with the Carlos Tevez "Welcome to Manchester" poster, continuing with Sir Alex Ferguson's eruption against Cook's "arrogant" and "cocky" club and concluding with his "noisy neighbours" swipe, which marked it out as an encounter between sides looking set to be future equals. Cook has read Ferguson's biography Managing my Life from cover to cover and has questioned him over dinner on his days as a Govan publican, but he actually believes the United manager unwittingly helped him with his outbursts in September.
"I like being a noisy neighbour because it means we are making an impact with what we are trying to do," he says. "I truly respect Sir Alex Ferguson. He is one of the legends of our game and it's interesting that he has been so vocal about a poster. But it has meant [the impact] has gone beyond those boundaries and had an impact on our rivals. It's had an impact on the personality people would like to think we represent, ie small club, small mentality."
There is a clear inference here that the Tevez poster will not be the last in a line which began with the "Made in Manchester" offering in the days of Stuart Pearce. There are a few moments, Cook admits, where he has thought "Oh dear" about his marketing department's project but they were fleeting. "This club has a personality – it's irreverent, young, it's fresh, there's humour," he says. "Comedy has always been at the heart of it and, really, the poster wasn't meant vindictively or meant with malice. "
There are far more voluble challenges to City than the lone voice of Ferguson, of course. The Uefa president Michel Platini's insistence that clubs may spend only what they earn by 2012 potentially hits at City more than anyone else and the United chief executive David Gill's suggestion this summer that City were "at the whim of someone [Sheikh Mansour al-Nahyan] pulling out and losing interest" contributed to the sense that there is something unsavoury about the Abu Dhabi project. "The comments of other clubs about the way our benefactor has helped our football club stretches over to an emotional point of view," Cook says. "We know people are going to be critical but the only thing I would say about opinion is I would much rather opinion was based on knowledge and fact than emotional outburst or their general thought."
This week in the emiracy has revealed to those unacquainted with the Abu Dhabis that Sheikh Mansour's objectives are not as altruistic as some have believed. Beyond a love of football, he saw City for its good investment possibilities, though it is not the Abu Dhabi way to walk away. Cook admits that the unpredictability of football – and City – makes this the most difficult sports business they have become involved with. "In football there's an emotional element that is unprecedented in anything else that they do and there's an unpredictability that doesn't allow you to manage the destiny as clearly as you'd like to," he says. "Everyone is learning through that process. It can be difficult. It can cause heartache. I always say to them [the Emiratis] that they have high-risk decisions with high upsides and big downsides. There never seems to be this ground in the middle."
Cook does see greater possibilities of a top-four finish in the Premier League this season than he probably anticipated, with Liverpool's struggles making the two clubs' encounter at Anfield tomorrow week a fascinating one. "It's probably unexpected," he says. "We have strengthened. Tottenham have strengthened. A couple of other teams have found some challenges compared to where they were last year and all of a sudden you've got a much more open competition. There's a good opportunity this year. It's probably the best opportunity there has been for a long time. We have only seen 11 games but so far the opportunity seems to be developing itself."
There have been no moves towards negotiating a new contract for manager Mark Hughes for when the current one expires at the end of next season. "Maybe that's a discussion we have in the future. We have not had it to this point. I think also you go back to the point between the previous owners [Thaksin Shinawatra, who sacked Sven Goran Eriksson after a year] and those now, a contract is a contract," says Cook, who – on balance – sees more differences than similarities between Hughes and Ferguson. "He's certainly not a ranter and a raver," Cook says. "There are other managers, not only Sir Alex Ferguson, who [can be like that at times]. He's much more considered. He can get pretty animated in the dressing room but he's more thoughtful, more controlled and more considerate."
Cook donated a piece of City's own silverware that was lifted here last night by the winners of the inaugural Emirates Foundation Cup between City and an Abu Dhabi XI. Trophies not having been in great abundance at the club they found one from the 1930s and unfortunately for Cook a 1-0 defeat meant they did not get to take it home. A mild, setback before Sheikh Mansour but Cook is not slumped on the sofa, even though in football you're never sure what the TV news ticker might reveal next.
Meanwhile, on the pitch...
Manchester City fell behind after only nine minutes of their tour match against the United Arab Emirates yesterday when goalkeeper Stuart Taylor dived awkwardly at the feet of the Emirati captain Saeed al Kas and striker Mohamed al Shihi converted the penalty.
City, fielding only Stephen Ireland, Pablo Zabaleta and Nedum Onuoha of their recognised first-teamers, failed to fashion many chances in a disappointing game in Abu Dhabi.Reuse content